Education, research and innovation come together in him: Professor Freddy Boey
With NTU’s strong focus on education, research and innovation, it comes as no surprise that Deputy President and Provost Prof Freddy Boey has a sterling track record of breakthrough commercial applications that have given the “made-in-Singapore” label pride of place on the global stage.
The former Chair of the School of Materials Science and Engineering, who is a fellow of Imperial College London, has developed 103 patents and founded several companies. In between, he has supervised a large number of PhDs and mentored post-doctorates. Some of Prof Boey’s students have gone on to set up companies or get involved in his start-up companies.
But Prof Boey insists it is research and education that remain his abiding passions. “I’m a scientist first,” he says, “and scientists are excited about ideas”.
Prof Boey has been at NTU long enough to witness its transformation from a teaching university into a research university. “It has been very exciting because of the great empowerment this has given our professors and students,” he says.
As the Chair of the School of Materials Science and Engineering from 2005 to 2010, he turned the school into one of the world’s largest materials engineering institutions with about 1,000 undergraduates and close to 250 research students. The school has developed a reputation for solid science that also generates technologies that can be commercialised.
Prof Boey’s own pioneering research in biomaterials for medical devices – as well as nanomaterials and nanostructures for cell regeneration, sensing and energy storage – have no doubt helped to raise both the school’s and NTU’s profile internationally, besides generating a buzz in international healthcare.
Take the disposable surgical tissue retractor he invented to keep wounds open during surgery. This was licensed to Insightra Medical Inc, Irvine, California, and sold in the US, Middle East, India, Japan and Europe.
Patents in hand, he has gone on to found companies such as Amaranth Medical Inc, which develops fully-biodegradable coronary stents that release drugs into heart patients. The flagship product of Prof Boey's most recent company, Peregrine Ophthalmic, is a nano-based drug delivery system to treat glaucoma, which has been successful in human trials.
Several of his biomedical devices have received US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval and the CE mark. His invention of a customisable hernia mesh that improves the outcome of hernia operations, through lowering the risk of inflammation and infection, was the first such surgical mesh to be approved for sale by the FDA in 2012.
Turning research into innovation
Through his work, Prof Boey has seen how it is possible for NTU academics and students to do research at an international level. “Our investors come from around the world, and they have found it compelling to put their money into our research. I am confident in saying that the level of work we do here is right up there with anybody else in the global arena. At NTU, we have a knack for turning ideas into reality.”
For Prof Boey, who in 2013 received the President's Science and Technology Medal, the highest national honour for lifetime achievement given to top research scientists and engineers in Singapore, the best ideas are always global. That is why he prefers NTU’s PhD students to do part of their research overseas. “Educating a PhD student is not like solving a technical problem. It is about learning how to learn – how to define, understand and solve problems. In today’s context, it means knowing the key people from around the world who are relevant to a particular problem, whether they are researchers or otherwise, and connecting with them.”
Prof Boey’s spirit of experimentation is matched by a prolific output and paired with the belief that his work should improve the lives of others. One of his prized inventions is a piezoelectric heart pump developed with NTU colleagues that was the world’s smallest when it was unveiled in 2003. At 50 grams, the pump is four times lighter and uses less power than conventional heart pumps. A more recent innovation is a fully biodegradable device that helps to plug heart defects like a hole in the heart. To date, his hole-in-the-heart plug is the only fully biodegradable device that has been shown to work in animals, and it is being tested in human trials.
Prof Boey’s other inventions include a coronary Cobalt Chromium stent that can release two drugs, licensed to a Californian Medical Group; micropumps for thermal management in consumer electronic gadgets, which have been licensed to a Hawaiian company; and microfluidic and biomedical devices. He also teamed up with the renowned Mayo Clinic to develop implants for the controlled release of cardiac peptides specially designed to treat heart diseases.
Going the distance
Prof Boey has gone to Silicon Valley in the United States in search of investment funding for his projects – with success. In addition, over the last few years, he has won several tens of millions in research grants, including a prestigious S$10 million individual grant under the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) Competitive Research Programme to develop fully biodegradable cardiovascular implants for hole-in-the-heart conditions.
He has also clinched a S$20 million NRF Technion–Singapore grant for his research in nanomedicine for cardiovascular diseases, and a S$1.25 million grant from the NRF Translational Flagship Project to make cataract surgery safer.
Prof Boey has published 352 top journal papers with a citation of 9,385 and H-Index of 48. Besides leading research and administrative projects, he serves as a Director on the boards of DSO National Laboratories and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART). Prof Boey also contributes on the boards of other nationally-funded research centres. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Materials (UK) and the Institution of Engineers Singapore, and a Founding Fellow of the Academy of Engineering, Singapore.
Prof Boey is on the panel of several national funding and award panels and has previously chaired the National A*STAR Grants Review Committee. He has received honorary doctorates from Loughborough University and Nanjing University of Technology, and holds the title of Honorary Professor at both the University of Indonesia and the Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications.
In November 2011, he received the Distinguished Alumni of the Year Award from Monash University at the 50th anniversary celebrations of its Faculty of Engineering. The award recognises his achievements as a teacher, researcher and innovator, including his exceptional contributions to nanomedicine, as well as his volunteer work since his student days. In 2010, he was awarded the Public Administration Medal (Silver) by the Singapore government.